Director of Schools Harry Gill Jr. strongly recommended the Rutherford County Commission consider raising property taxes this year out of fear that Stewart’s Creek High School may not open on time.
“You don’t want to be faced with the possibility of not opening Stewart’s Creek after spending $46 million to build it,” Gill said during a joint meeting with the Health and Education Committee and Budget and Finance Committee Tuesday.
Gill presented the School Board’s proposed $279.7 million budget to members of both committees, which is an increase of more than $12 million from last year.
“The state has mandated we give teachers a 2.5 percent raise,” he said.
Mandated raises make up $5.5 million of the total increase with the rest being attributed to insurance, growth and maintenance costs. Gill also budgeted a raise for classified staff, which makes up $1.1 million of the increase.
Raises were not the only mandates being imposed on local governments with little funding being provided by the state.
Higher standards for public schools under the American Diploma Project also make up a large portion of the increased budget as students will have to take chemistry, and four years of math in high school beginning next year, which requires more teachers.
“So there’s 19 positions the state says you have to have that we didn’t need before this year,” Gill said.
The School Board’s budget mirrors last year’s with the exception of mandates and a small pay increase for classified staff.
“This is basically a ‘get by’ budget in my view,” he said.
The Board of Education is required by state law to maintain 3 percent of appropriations in the unassigned fund balance under the General Purpose School Fund. How to fully fund the proposed budget is a topic of concern as the unassigned fund balance could get dangerously close to coming up short.
“We could fund that from our fund balance and if we did that it would take our fund balance down to 3.13 percent, which puts us in compliance with what the state law requires, but your dilemma is we committed to open Stewart’s Creek without a tax increase and that’s going to be an additional $4 million to open,” he said.
Gill also argued if the commission doesn’t raise taxes this year, they will surely be doing it next year.
“You have to choose your poison with respect to this issue,” he said. “Do you want to raise taxes a little bit this year and leave us where we can keep our fund balance around 4 percent or do you want us to use that full fund balance to fund this budget and if you do, next year is the year you’re going to be raising taxes.”
Commissioner Will Jordan (Dist. 3) made clear he did not want to raise taxes this year and would rather wait to see how the fund balance ends.
“I’d rather leave the tax rate alone this year...and see where that fund balance ends up at because historically it does end up better,” Jordan said. “I’d rather think about raising taxes next year than actually raise them now and the money come in better and we didn’t have to (raise taxes) to start with.”
Mayor Ernest Burgess agreed with Jordan saying, “It’s close, it’s tight and I’m confident we will end better than projected.”
“I hope when this time rolls around next year that if we don’t have enough to open Stewart’s Creek, I don’t want the School Board to be the bad guys. I want to say, ‘hey, we told you up front it’s dangerous for us to go that deep in fund balance,’ but it all may shake out. I hope it does,” Gill said.
The Health and Education Committee approved the Board of Education’s proposed budget.
The Budget and Finance Committee will review the budget Tuesday, May 29, and consider whether to recommend a property tax increase to the County Commission.